Women Status in the Arab Gulf Countries

The Koran in its universal message to humanity says: “O mankind, keep your duty to your Lord who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate (of same kind) and from them twain has spread a multitude of men and women” (Koran 4: 1)

Women according to Koran are not blamed for Adam’s first mistake. Both were jointly wrong in their disobedience to God, both repented and both were forgiven. Infact, in one verse, Adam specifically was blamed.

A lot of attention has been focused on Muslim women and Human Rights since September 11. Once again, images of women swathed in black veils or blue burqas are de rigeur, as the media soberly reminds us that Muslim women are not considered equals to men in Islam, and that they are oppressed by even the moderate regimes in the Muslim world. There are women in the Muslim countries who take their political thought not from Islamic sources, but from feminism, socialism and capitalism. Meanwhile, real Muslim females suffer at the hands of societies and governments who would harm them in the name of Islam.

Anyone wishing to understand Islam must first separate the religion from the cultural norms and style of a society. Koran is addressed to all Muslims, and for the most part it does not differentiate between male and female. They do it all in the name of Islam, in the name of Allah, but how can anyone justify Islam’s treatment of women regardless of their age, education or access to the public sphere, when it imprisons Afghans under blue shuttlecock burqas and make the Muslim girls marry strangers selected by the male members of the family against their will? Which religion forces its women into polygamous marriages, mutilates their genitals (now considered as an inconceivable horror by the vast majority of Muslims), forbids them to drive cars or to leave their homes without a male member of the family, encourage female infanticide and subjects the women to the humiliation of instant divorce? The bias is justified based on assumed gender roles. Infact, none of these practices are Islamic, but Talibanic.

Before the advent of Islam, the Arab women generally enjoyed a respectable status in society. It was only in one predator tribe of Mecca that the evil custom of burying alive the girl child prevailed. Later, Islam added measures for the so called preservation of modesty of women, like casting down their eyes in public, concealing their breasts and jewellery and the likes. However, these restrictions were later extended by the followers of the prophet far beyond their actual intentions and remained more or less a permanent feature of Muslim life thereafter. Islam took the women as the land tilled by the man where he spilled his seeds.

On September 27, 1996, the Taliban, an extremist militia, seized control of the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, and violently plunged the country into a brutal state of gender apartheid in which women and girls were stripped off of their basic human rights, thrusting them into a state of house arrest, all in the name of Islam. Women were brutally beaten, publicly flogged and killed for violating Taliban decrees.

Saudi Arabia’s pervasive and powerful morality police have been a pillar of the ultra-conservative kingdom since its foundation. The influence of the morality police varies through Saudi Arabia and is strongest in the central Riyadh area, a bastion of the kingdom’s unique, strict Muslim creed known as “Wahhabism”. These policemen prowl the streets and shopping malls, hunting down women who don’t shroud themselves and Muslim men who ignore the call to prayer. They check that women wear the abaya, the all enveloping black cloak, that men and women together in public are related, that drugs and alcohol are not being traded and that Muslims do not observe “frivolous” customs such as Valentine’s Day.

In Islam, relations between the sexes are governed by the principle of complementarity rather than the principle of equality. In many Islamic societies, there is a division of roles creating a woman’s space in the private sphere of the home and a man’s in the public sphere. Because of this economic reliance of women on men, the Koran justifies that men should always be in charge over women.

A women’s primary responsibility is usually interpreted as fulfilling her role as a mother and wife, where as a man’s role is to work is to work and to financially support his wife and family. Islam gives women the right to own, but there share has to be less than that of men. Their right to work is also disputed. The status of women’s testimony is also disputed. Some jurists have held that certain type of testimony by women will not be accepted. In case of sexual crimes such as zina (fornication) generally the women are found guilty more easily than men however, the majority of Muslim scholars are of the belief that there is no punishment for a woman coerced into sex.

Afghan women educated before the Taliban rule know that banning girls from school is forbidden in Islam, which encourages all Muslims to seek knowledge from cradle to grave, from every possible source. According to Koran, women have the right to divorce, to inherit property, to conduct business and to have access to knowledge. The veiling of Muslim women is a more complex issue. Certainly, the Koran requires them to behave and dress modestly – but these scriptures apply equally to men. Only one verse refers to the veiling of women, stating that the Prophet’s wives should be behind a hijab when his male guests converse with him.

As in many cultures across the Islamic world, dress and bodily aesthetics in the Arab Gulf countries emphasize gender difference through contrast. So while men wear short hair and trim body hair with razors, women have to ear long hair and depilate using halawa, a lemon sugar paste but cannot shave. They can wear make up only in front of one’s husband or other women but no one male, because it enhances feminity and sexuality. Makeup also conveys meanings about religious piety and so they have to wash their face before praying and it is believed that a pious woman should avoid daily make up application, not even nail polish.

City women often face particular pressures to demonstrate their morality by controlling their movements through public places. Women are generally seen as weakly pious, that is, inattentive to doctrine, pronouncements or daily adherence, and interested only in feasts and superstitions such as ecstatic Sufi singing festivals or holidays. Western portrayal of Arab women has often treated the veiled face as a symbol of female oppression.

Most documents of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries elaborate on Zoroastrian belief system, for example, produce women’s body as ritually unclean, requiring the strict observation of complex laws governing eating, bathing, and seclusion during menstruation and pregnancy. Cutting of hair was a disciplinary action to bring on the woman shame and disgrace. Women’s right to become imams is also disputed by many.

Encyclopedia of women and Islamic cultures by Suad

According to The United Nations Development Fund for Women’s (UNIFEM) Progress of Arab Women report states “women empowerment” faces strong opposition in Arab states because of “the connection between gender relations and established power dynamics, competition over limited resources” and the “deep questions that gender justice raises for cultural and religious values and traditions.” The report notes that globalization and the global economic integration negatively impacts Arab women.

More than pride, more than honesty, more than anything a man might do, female chastity in the Arab world is seen as an indelible line, the boundary between respect and shame. An unchaste woman, it is sometimes said, is worse than a murderer, affecting not just one victim but her whole family and her tribe. Honor killing is an unforgiving logic, and its product for centuries and now, has been murder – the killings of girls and women by their relatives, to cleanse honor that has been soiled. Honor killing are not exclusively an Arab phenomenon. They are known in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and other Persian Gulf countries, India, Pakistan and Turkey among other places, particularly among poor rural Muslims. But in most countries, activists and human rights groups say, most killers receive light punishment, sometimes as little as six months, when they are prosecuted at all.

Arab judges, who are almost always male, are generally allowed great latitude in sentencing and most see it as a circumstance akin to self defense. It is necessary to admit that using the expression ‘on the background of the honor of the family’ indirectly provides an excuse to the killer without giving the accused a chance to defend herself. Honor killings are sanctioned in Iran’s and Afghanistan’s penal codes in which honor killings are legal and lightly punished. Women wanting to fight the phenomenon have found it an uphill struggle.

Incident: On 15th August, 2004, Atefah Sahaaleh was hanged in a public square in the Iranian city of Neka. Her death sentence was imposed for crime against chastity. The state run newspaper accused her of adultery and described her as 22 years old. But she was not married and just 16 years old.

Often in such cases, to gain religious permissions to conduct these acts, fatwa is issued. Fatwa are expected to deal with religious issues. In exceptional cases, religious issues and political ones seem to be inextricably intertwined. The term fatwa is used by Islamic extremists to mean ‘permission’ to do a certain act that might be otherwise illegal under Islamic law. For example, Osama Bin Laden in 1998 in purportedly sought and obtained a fatwa to attack the United States.

Women in the Islamic countries have long been regarded as chattels, while the men are deemed the guardians of their sexuality. In Muslim marriages there is also something called as a marriage contract. The contract specifies the dowry (mahr) the groom gives to the bride upon their marriage. Marriages are arranged, tertiary education if frowned upon and independent or headstrong women are not appreciated. There is no age limit for marriage according to Sharia (Islamic Law) though it is said that the woman should at least be nine years old.

The jurists have held that Muslim women may only enter into marriage with Muslim men. The main thrust of the pressure placed on a woman is to remain virgin until marriage, then to remain with her husband irrespective of his behavior with her. Recently a Muslim leader requested the women in the communities to wear chastity belt to protect themselves from being rape victims. It means for the women to punish themselves to protect themselves.

Movement and traveling is also within limits for the women of the Muslim community. Both husband and wife need to inform each other before leaving the house but the wife needs permission from her husband to leave home. Some scholars state that a woman should not travel by herself on a journey that takes longer than three days and should be accompanied by an unmarriageable relative.

In an interview on a feminist programme aired on radio Sweden last year, Souha Araf, an Israeli Arab, how many young Arab women had taken into political roles during the intifada. These female activists forgot the place they were expected traditionally to take in the society and soon became problem for the communities. Thus were born the Fatah “decency squad”, which assumed the role of family honor enforcers, looking for and often inventing pretexts for sorting out troublesome women. A common excuse was that the suspect woman, by luring the man off the streets, were keeping them away from fighting against the Israeli “occupiers”

Incident: Etaf, a mother of three, was accused by a Fatah squad for having an illicit affair with a man suspected of collaborating. Her husband and children were taken to another room and she was interrogated in her own kitchen, the squad members then slit her throat with a kitchen knife heated over the gas stove.

It is quite clear from the foregoing that while the boundaries of Islam and nations are indeterminate and their juxtapositions variable, the centrality of women in guaranteeing the integrity of both is not. Leila Ahmed voices the dilemma of feminists in the Middle East in poignant terms when she says,”It is only when one considers that one’s sexual identity alone (and some would accept this) is more inextricably oneself than one’s cultural identity, that one can perhaps appreciate how excruciating is the plight of the Middle Eastern feminist caught between these two opposing loyalties, forced almost to choose between betrayal and betrayal.”

Women, Islam and the State by Deniz Kandiyoti

The irony of it all is that Prophet Mohammed, sallalahu aleyhi wa salaam, was mocked and assaulted because of his strong and courageous stance on the status of women. He came with a message which lifted the women up and gave them dignity. Fourteen hundred years later, the Muslims have descended back into the dark pit of Jahiliya, and Muslim women around the world find themselves cast into the same slavery that Prophet sallalahu aleyhi wa salaam, was sent to liberate them from.

The Muslim women are undergoing a search for their identity in the Muslim world.

Works Cited

Encyclopedia of women and Islamic cultures by Suad. Web.

Women, Islam and the State by Deniz Kandiyoti. Web.

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